A comparison of placebo and nocebo effects on objective and subjective postural stability: a double-edged sword?

Katherine Russell, Michael Duncan, Michael Price, Amber Mosewich, Toby Ellmers, Mathew Hill

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Abstract

Background: Positive expectations (i.e., placebo effect) can improve postural control during quiet standing. This raises an important question: if postural control is susceptible to positive expectations, is it possible to elicit the opposite, a decline in postural stability, simply by suggesting a performance impairment (i.e., nocebo) will take place? Yet no studies have examined the nocebo effect on balance performance. To better understand both phenomena, comparative studies, which include both placebo and nocebo conditions, are needed. Method: Forty-two healthy adults were initially assessed for objective (center of pressure movement) and subjective (perceived) postural stability and performance expectations. Participants were then randomly assigned in equal numbers to a placebo (positive expectation), nocebo (negative expectation) or control (no suggestion) group. Participants in the placebo/nocebo groups were deceptively administered an inert capsule described as a potent supplement which would either positively or negatively influence their balance performance. Objective and subjective postural stability, and performance expectations were reassessed 20 min later. Results: The nocebo procedure evoked an increase in COP sway movements and reduced perceived stability compared to a control group. The placebo group presented with reductions COP sway movements and increased perceived stability following expectation manipulation. Compared to the control group, the placebo group showed a significantly higher performance expectation whilst the nocebo group showed a significantly lower performance expectation. Regression analyses also revealed that performance expectations following the placebo/nocebo procedure significantly predicted perceptions of postural instability (i.e., perceived performance), accounting for around 50% of the variance. These results remained even when controlling for actual performance (i.e., objective postural stability). Conclusion: Our findings indicate that positive and negative performance expectations evoked by instructional manipulation can profoundly influence both objective and subjective postural stability. Postural control—and perceptions regarding such—are clearly susceptible to expectation manipulation, which could have important practical implications and repercussions on testing, training interventions and rehabilitation programs. Positive and negative expectancies are a double-edged sword for postural control.
Original languageEnglish
Article number967722
Number of pages16
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Volume16
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 18 Aug 2022

Bibliographical note

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use,
distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

Keywords

  • Human Neuroscience
  • placebo
  • nocebo
  • expectation
  • postural control
  • subjective stability
  • belief

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